“Take me back to England
& the grey, damp filthiness of ages
fog rolling down behind the mountains
& on the graveyards, and dead sea-captains.”
PJ Harvey, The Last Living Rose
PJ Harvey’s new album was recorded in a 19th Century church in Dorset, on a cliff-top overlooking the sea. It was created with a cast of musicians including such long-standing allies as Flood, John Parish, and Mick Harvey. It is the eighth PJ Harvey album, following 2007’s acclaimed White Chalk, and the Harvey/Parish collaboration A Woman A Man Walked By.
Such are the bare facts. But what is remarkable about Let England Shake is bound up with its music, its abiding atmosphere – and in particular, its words. If Harvey’s past work might seem to draw on direct emotional experience, this new album is rather different. Its songs centre on both her home country, and events further afield in which it has embroiled itself. The lyrics return, time and again, to the matter of war, the fate of the people who must do the fighting, and events separated by whole ages, from Afghanistan to Gallipoli. The album they make up is not a work of protest, nor of strait-laced social or political comment. It brims with the mystery and magnetism in which she excels. But her lyric-writing in particular has arrived at a new, breathtaking place, in which the human aspects of history are pushed to the foreground. Put simply, not many people make records like this.
“I was looking outwards a lot more,” she told the BBC’s Andrew Marr, when she appeared on his programme back in May. “I think a lot of my work has often been about the interior, the emotional, what happens inside oneself. And this time I’ve been just looking out, so it’s not only to do with taking a look at England but taking a look at the world and what happening in current world affairs. But always trying to come from the human point of view, because I don’t feel qualified to sing from a political standpoint… I sing as a human being affected by the politics, and that for me is a more successful way … because I so often feel that with a lot of protest music, I’m being preached to, and I don’t want that.”.
By way of an introduction, there is the title song: “The West’s asleep. Let England shake/weighted down with silent dead.” As with so much of the record, the arrangement and melody have echoes of vernacular music going back centuries, but also push somewhere new: certainly, identifying any prevailing influence on this music is almost impossible. The lyrics hint at England’s post-imperial delusions, and yet another hapless soldier marching off to the front – themes that recur in The Words That Maketh Murder, All And Everyone, and Hanging In The Wire. But there is something else here: a brilliantly poetic picture of England itself – an old country, now creaking with age and experience, whose history is etched into the hearts and minds of the people who live here. One of the songs here is simply called England, and makes the point explicit: “I live and die/through England./It leaves/sadness./It leaves a taste,/a bitter one.”
Let England Shake evokes the troubled spirit of 2010, but it also casts its mind back to times and places from our long collective memory. In keeping with such imaginative intentions, its music has a rare breadth and emotional power. Nearly two decades after she made her first records, it proves not just that its author refuses to stand still, but that her creative confidence may well be at an all-time high. It is safe to say that you will not have heard anything like it before.
John Harris, November 2010